Budge up a bit, says Holyrood

SNP plans for sector focus on mergers and research concentration. David Matthews reports

September 22, 2011

Universities in Scotland may merge, research funding could go to a "smaller number" of institutions and statutory access targets may be implemented, Holyrood has said.

Putting Learners at the Centre: Delivering Our Ambitions for Post-16 Education, a pre-legislative agenda published by the Scottish National Party government, was broadly welcomed by the University and College Union Scotland, although some parts were seen as "bold and challenging" by Universities Scotland.

The document, released last week, notes "room for some consolidation in the university sector" and "overlaps in provision" in urban areas.

However, a spokeswoman for Universities Scotland cautioned that "you're only going to have successful mergers when they are initiated by institutions".

She added that there had been 10 institutional mergers in the past two decades and said a "strong academic and business case" would have to be made for any more.

In the most recent case, ratified last month, Edinburgh College of Art joined the University of Edinburgh.

Mary Senior, an official at UCU Scotland, said she supported mergers as long as they were done for "sensible educational reasons" and did not lead to job cuts. She said that Holyrood was likely to be referring to "specialist institutions", although she added that most of these had already merged.

"The rest of the universities have particular missions," she said.

The SNP also proposes to consolidate "the majority of...research funding in a smaller number of universities with a track record of world-leading research".

This will attract more research money from other sources and boost economic impact, the plans say.

Yet Ms Senior said that the current balance of research funding in Scotland, which is less concentrated than that in England, was correct.

"We wouldn't like to see teaching-only institutions," she said. Universities Scotland took the same view.

The agenda also includes a number of proposals to widen access. Under the plans, universities will be obliged to subscribe to widening access outcome agreements drawn up with the Scottish Funding Council if there is an "imbalance" in "patterns of participation".

The agreements would have statutory force and universities could be fined if they did not meet them.

"We will consider placing a statutory duty on institutions to seek out those with the greatest potential, who would be identified with reference to their grades and their situation," the document says.

The government will consider relaxing caps on numbers to allow institutions to "over-recruit" students from the most deprived fifth of Scottish society.

Universities Scotland said it was "open-minded" about using contextual data in admissions, adding that opposition had not generally come from universities, but schools.

Ms Senior said she was generally supportive of the access plans but "slightly concerned about (state) interference in admissions policies".

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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